Kathryn J. Coleman and her team support 3M’s culture of innovation and ensure employees have the skills they need to succeed.
There’s no shortage of challenges around the world, and 3M is using science and technology to tackle them and improve lives. The result: more than 60,000 products from well-known brands like Command, ACE, and Scotch-Brite that people use in their homes, businesses, schools, and hospitals.
3M’s global employees are also working to fight the COVID-19 pandemic from all angles—manufacturing personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, developing new air purifiers for office buildings, and improving cleaning products to sanitize homes.
“It’s such purposeful work,” says Kathryn J. Coleman, senior vice president of talent, learning, and insights (TL&I). She leads the cross-functional team that brings together experts to provide workforce and talent planning to attract, develop, and support talent retention and progression.
3M formed the team to boost the company’s end-to-end focus on talent platforms and priorities, investing in critical capabilities and expertise needed to compete. The L in TL&I represents the learning and leadership development teams that focus on building the critical skills and capabilities of the company’s 93,000 employees in 87 countries who work across a network of four key business groups: safety and industrial, transportation and electronics, healthcare, and consumer.
“Our team is focused on advancing skills and diversity to build great leaders, optimize organizations, activate the 3M culture, and provide deep insights to support above-macro performance,” Coleman says. Within TL&I there are various functional areas such as workforce planning, learning, leadership development, talent acquisition, and succession planning.
In addition to working with business partners, team members must work closely with each other. Experts who concentrate on upskilling and reskilling demands must work in concert with the workforce talent planning group; collaborate with talent acquisition professionals; and coordinate with those operating in organizational design, succession planning, and other departments.
The L&D team looks at skills development across two broad categories: the critical skills needed today and the emerging skills needed for tomorrow. In response to the challenges related to reskilling and upskilling in the workforce, 3M has implemented a new program called Learning Tracks, which focuses on skills development across culture skills and behaviors, leadership development, enterprise core skills, and functional skills.
“We want to ensure we have the enterprise and functional skills we need for today and tomorrow, and the Learning Tracks program helps to ensure that,” explains Coleman.
She notes that the leadership development program is a good example of how 3M is focusing on cultivating its unique culture as well as developing enterprise core capabilities and broad knowledge. By employing a blend of formal training programs, real-time projects, and coaching, the initiative provides a common framework for developing leaders at all levels.
“In turn, these leaders can help develop other leaders, empower their teams to create and innovate, and activate and energize people around 3M’s key strategic priorities,” Coleman says.
TL&I connects to the workforce in myriad ways beyond skills training and development. Whether the team is providing support related to workforce planning, talent attraction and retention, or employee career progression, Coleman explains that there’s “a series of handshakes that need to occur between the TL&I team and business group leaders to ensure the employee experience is connected and fluid.”
Like most organizations, identifying and keeping pace with the skills the company will need to compete in the future is an ongoing challenge. “There’s a continual need to stay fresh and current on those skills across different disciplines,” she says, “but the runway for skills is short.”
The speed of change makes it difficult to operationalize that dynamic, Coleman states, even in a company that is anchored in technology, research, and innovation. She describes how the pace of business and changing markets has accelerated the cycle of employee skills needs from a three- to five-year cycle to one or two years.
“We’re actively trying to identify and document the skills that already exist among 3M employees,” Coleman explains. “We want to understand the strength of skills across our workforce.”
An important first step is getting employees to self-identify their skills and capabilities via talent profiles. Coleman notes that the breadth and depth of an individual’s experience can look different from the role in which that person is performing.
“Someone could be certified in Agile framework, but their current role doesn’t require Agile,” she says. “So, we’re exploring how we, as an organization, can know that they have this skill, and how that skill could potentially be relevant to their career journey.”
Additionally, understanding employee details such as role, function, and tenure enables the TL&I team to make better decisions about which employees need upskilling and avoid adding redundancy if someone already has a particular credential or area of expertise. Meanwhile, leaders can use talent profiles to help identify employees who may be a good fit for a specific project team or highlight opportunities for internal mobility.
“It sometimes can feel like catching water, but the end result will be worth the effort,” Coleman affirms.
Moments that matter
“When we provide learning or some other form of career support, we want to be sure that it’s significant for our employees versus convenient for us,” says Coleman. “That includes making sure we connect with 3Mers at key moments in their career journey.” Coleman refers to those times as the “moments that matter.”
She explains that 3M employees hit certain milestones, such as onboarding as a new employee or becoming a first-time manager. Incorporating learning and leadership development during those important milestones offers a consistent framework for providing resources and tools, regardless of business group or an employee’s location.
Additionally, 3M recently introduced Work Your Way, a new philosophy that prioritizes flexibility for all and supports employee choice when it comes to working on-site, remotely, or in a hybrid model.
“Innovation and collaboration represent who we are and drive our success—no matter where or how we work,” Coleman says. “A more flexible way of working is essential for 3M’s continued growth and ability to attract and retain talent in an increasingly competitive environment.”
She adds: “It’s all about the employee’s career journey. From day one, it’s about building community, developing skills, setting expectations, changing and transforming behaviors, advancing our culture, and creating a sense of belonging. This drives employee development and fuels innovation and business growth.”
To ensure the organization is connecting with employees at the right moment—rolling out the necessary development programs, learning content, and key messaging from leadership—3M relies on technology.
“The team has been moving from a multiplatform, multiexperience system to an integrated one with a common user interface,” Coleman explains. “We are on the path of transforming our learning ecosystem, and we’re doing it thoughtfully and with the employee in mind.”
But that doesn’t mean the company is moving to a single platform. “3M is highly diversified, and we need different platforms and tools, but our employees don’t need to have a disconnected experience.”
Coleman equates it to the multiple cords plugged into a computer. “As a user, I don’t need to see the cords; I need to know my computer is working.”
3M’s learning ecosystem provides employees with personalized and adaptive learning experiences that meet them where they are in the flow of work. “A centralized learning experience platform will visualize an employee’s required training and recommend learning opportunities in a single location,” Coleman says.
The company prides itself on a culture of innovation. Each year, roughly 3,000 patents are issued to 3M worldwide, and one-third of its sales come from products its thousands of researchers and scientists have invented within the past five years.
Whether it’s experimenting with a new technology, forming a special interest group around a fresh idea, or finding an innovative way to run a particular process, 3M’s 15% Culture gives employees in all areas the license to innovate. It’s the company’s underlying philosophy that empowers workers to set aside a portion of their work time to proactively pursue innovative ideas that excite them.
The Post-it note is just one result from that. “Innovation is our culture,” says Coleman. “No one has to tell you. No one has to orchestrate it.”
While employees must coordinate with their manager to ensure they still execute their day-to-day responsibilities, the company gives them the space they need to try something new and think differently. “If employees are curious or want to explore something, they just do it,” she adds. “You really get some of the most innovative ideas when you allow people to explore, to pull threads of new and different knowledge.”
That culture of innovation doesn’t only manifest itself in new product development. Employees’ exploration of new ideas may lead them down entirely different career paths—and that’s a welcome circumstance.
“Because we are so diversified and because people can pursue various interests, 3M employees can have multiple careers in different disciplines across the company. At 3M, you can go lots of places,” explains Coleman, whose tenure reflects that.
Since joining the company in 2011, she has served in several roles, from those focused on supporting talent acquisition and one that transformed how the organization uses learning technology to yet another position that focused on leading culture and strategy.
Coleman believes her various roles and responsibilities have uniquely positioned her for the leadership role she has today. And she has advice for professionals who don’t have the good fortune to work in a culture that so strongly supports innovation, creativity, and self-reinvention: Don’t limit yourself.
“We so often self-limit. We say ‘I can’t. Not me. I’m not ready.’ Instead, we need to be open to new and different experiences.”
What’s more, she affirms that “as leaders, we need to be willing to be vulnerable and not be the smartest person in the room. Leadership is about being willing to follow as well. Leadership is about succeeding, failing, and adapting—it’s about learning.”
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